National News

Houston’s Meyerland Surveys Flood Damage

‍‍2015-05-27 16:59:32 - כח כסלו תשעה mshapiro

Congregation Beth Israel in Houston was flooded Tuesday after the Brays Bayou overflowed, making Braeswood Blvd impassible.

Congregation Beth Israel in Houston was flooded Tuesday after the Brays Bayou overflowed, making Braeswood Blvd. (pictured) impassible.

The devastation from a pattern of torrential rain and flooding that has killed 19 people in Texas and Oklahoma Tuesday is being felt in one neighborhood in Houston where a sizable portion of the city’s Jewish community lies.

Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, which lies on the city’s southwest side, was one of the more heavily affected areas due to its proximity to the Brays Bayou. Flooding can occur during heavy rains when the Bayou overflows.

Pat Pollicoff, president of Houston Congregation Beth Israel, said their sanctuary was flooded Tuesday with about one foot of water that came as far as the third row.

“The sanctuary literally faces toward the bayou,” she said.

Pollicoff said she does not think any of the Torah’s were destroyed since they were sitting on a raised bimah. A number of events scheduled in the sanctuary this week, including Thursday’s graduation ceremony and Friday night Shabbat services.

“We had crews working overnight last night to pump all of the water out, which is nearly complete. Carpets will have to be cleaned and dried and some replaced, but it will be in good enough shape that we will be able to prepare for a large Saturday night wedding that we have scheduled in there,” she said.

Congregation Beth Israel is home to about 1,500 families, many of which live close to the bayou and suffered damage as a result of the flooding, Pollicoff said.

“We’ve asked them to let us know if they need any assistance because we want to help in any way that they can,” she said.

The Schlenker School, adjacent to Beth Israel, was closed Tuesday after parts of the campus were flooded, but has since reopened, said spokeswoman Lisa Miller.

One of the hardest hit congregations was United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, which sustained extensive damage after it was submerged in three feet of water.

Lee Wunsch, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, said the city was virtually immobilized Tuesday, making communication very difficult.

“There was total paralysis yesterday (Tuesday) so today was really the first day we’ve been able to figure everything out,” he said. “Having gone through these disasters before, it usually takes two, three, four days before we know how many homes, institutions and families are affected.”

Rodi Franco, the federation’s Chief Marketing Officer, said the Bellaire and Willow Meadows neighborhoods were also severely affected. She said she can relate to people who lost possessions in the storm, having suffered through $70,000 in damage during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

“Your car was flooded. It was sitting on the street. OK there’s no more water it all drained out. But you’re waiting for the assessor,” she said of what she endured during that storm.

Congregation Beth Israel in Houston was flooded Tuesday after the Brays Bayou overflowed, making Braeswood Blvd impassible.
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Obama Gets Candid on Middle East

‍‍2015-05-26 10:39:40 - כח כסלו תשעה mshapiro

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Adas Israel Congregation Senior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Adas Israel Congregation Senior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama went on the charm offensive last week, declaring publically what his most ardent Jewish Democratic supporters have said he’s expressed privately: a love of the Jewish people and Israel.

Speaking before an audience of 1,000 at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., Obama joked about his status as the “first Jewish president,” so conferred upon him by Atlantic magazine writer and Adas member Jeffrey Goldberg, and declared that the values of Israeli pioneers “in many ways came to be my own values.”

But those strong sentiments did not cause the president to back down on criticisms of Israeli policies.

“I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland,” said Obama. “And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”

That criticism has been a hallmark of administration diplomacy of late, as several statements attributed to Obama, his advisers and members of his Cabinet have singled out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for blame in the failure of the peace process to move forward.

“Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland,” Obama argued at the synagogue, “Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well.”

Though much applause and cheers rang out from the pews, there were more than a few audience members who sat in silence and saved their applause for when the president declared the Palestinians as “not the easiest of partners.”

“The neighborhood is dangerous,” said the president. “And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.”

With a white kippah perched atop his head, Obama forged on, addressing the ongoing nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran.

“I will not accept a bad deal,” he said of the nuclear accord expected before a June 30 deadline. “As I pointed out in my most recent article with Jeff Goldberg, this deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise.”

Goldberg, who interviewed the president at length for his magazine, was seated just a few rows from Obama as the president acknowledged that a good deal doesn’t erase “Iran’s support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and ugly threats against Israel. … And that’s why the people of Israel must always know America has its back, and America will always have its back.”

Noticeably absent from the occasion was Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

The fraught relationship between Dermer, a former Republican Party operative, and the White House is an open secret inside the Beltway, but several politicos commented that given the rare appearance of a sitting president addressing a Jewish congregation from the bima — only the fourth time in U.S. history that America’s chief executive has visited a synagogue — the ambassador should have been present.

Obama’s presence was in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month and coincided with Solidarity Sabbath, an initiative of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice that called upon world leaders to stand with victims of anti-Semitism.

Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the foundation and daughter of the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), for whom the foundation is named, was in attendance alongside her mother Annette Lantos. The initiative, she explained, “grew out of disturbing events in Europe and North America.”

She added that close to two dozen countries chose to participate in the Solidarity Sabbath and that the initiative’s website would soon be populated with information detailing information on how partner countries are combatting anti-Semitism within their borders.

“We wanted to give governments a chance to put their makers down in an international context to say, ‘Yes, we stand with our Jewish communities,” said Swett.

Greg Rosenbaum, chair of JAHM, shared similar thoughts.

“Persecution, historically, has been against a backdrop of leaders or government policies that had anti-Semitic themes,” said Rosenbaum. “If we can educate the population about the contributions of Jewish Americans to everyday life, then if something happened here, then the people would be less likely to support it.”

Obama named Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan, Albert Einstein and Louis Brandeis as examples of American Jews who have “made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect.”

The president recognized Ira Forman, special U.S. envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, seated toward the front of the sanctuary, and noted the “deeply disturbing rise in anti-Semitism in parts of the world where it would have seemed unthinkable just a few years or decades ago.”

“Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire,” said Obama. “And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread.”

Rachel Beyda, the University of California, Los Angeles student who faced an apparent anti-Semitic line of questioning in her quest to join her university’s student judicial board, was specifically requested to attend by the White House. Beyda, alongside Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, met with Obama briefly before his remarks.

The president’s condemnation of anti-Semitism resonated with Beyda.

“Jews seem to have lost their minority status. It was very interesting that President Obama made links between the struggles African-Americans and Jews have gone through,” she said. “That part of history is often forgotten and I think those attitudes need to change.”

Added Fingerhut, “I think [the speech] will turn out to be a moment when we became clear as a nation that what is happening on our college campuses is not simply anti-Israel political activity but anti-Semitic activity targeted at no other nation in the world, no other people.”

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who ceded his pulpit for the morning, said, “How blessed we are in our time to have a president of the United States to take the time to address the Jewish people, acknowledge our contributions [and raise] our awareness to the [rise] of anti-Semitism and how world leaders need to combat anti-Semitism.

“I thank God,” added the rabbi, “that we have a president like this who is able to make that kind of stand.”

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Adas Israel Congregation Senior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf.
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Reform Biennial to Feature Presidential Hopefuls

‍‍2015-05-21 20:29:00 - כח כסלו תשעה jrunyan

“Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd has been tapped to host a presidential candidates’ forum at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial in November.

The NBC News political director will interview 2016 presidential candidates one-on-one and give the hopefuls an opportunity to answer questions from URJ leadership and biennial delegates at the event scheduled for the evening of Nov. 7 at the Orlando World Center Marriott in Orlando, Fla.

“URJ’s Biennial, because of its timing, location and audience, will be a must-attend event for the top presidential candidates,” Todd said in a statement released by the URJ. “Florida has long been a key state in presidential elections, and I am very much looking forward to this unique presidential forum.”

Candidates will be confirmed closer to the fall. A spokesperson for the URJ stated that the organization has been in ongoing conversations with candidates from both parties.

An estimated 5,000 Reform Jews are expected to attend the 73rd URJ Biennial from Nov. 4 to 8. Confirmed speakers include New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit and Israeli Knesset member Stav Shaffir.

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Where Freundel May Serve

‍‍2015-05-21 10:15:03 - כח כסלו תשעה mjankovitz

Courtroom sketch artist  William J. Hennessy completes his  treatment of the Freundel sentencing  on the courthouse’s front steps.

Courtroom sketch artist
William J. Hennessy completes his
treatment of the Freundel sentencing
on the courthouse’s front steps.

Where Rabbi Barry Freundel spends the next 6 1/2 years now lies in the hands of Senior Judge Geoffrey Alprin and the Board of Prisons.

Joseph J., a Jewish former judicial official who served 181/2 months in federal prison for soliciting bribes from two attorneys, believes Freundel should push hard to be sent to a “satellite camp,” a stand-alone camp located next to a federal correction facility.

“A camp is very open. You are still in jail. The food is terrible. You have no privacy,” said Joseph J., who asked that his last name not be used. However, “your movement is free throughout the day” once an inmate finishes his mandatory job.

“It’s a real privilege to be in a camp,” he said. There is little fear of physical or sexual abuse, because inmates understand that any wrongdoing can send them to a more restrictive cellblock “with barbed wires.”

Freundel, the former rabbi of Washington, D.C.’s Kesher Israel congregation who was sentenced May 15 for multiple counts of surreptitiously recording women as they used the National Capital Mikvah next to his synagogue, is eligible to serve in a satellite camp as his sentence is less than 10 years and his crime was nonviolent, Joseph J. said.

Although it’s been 13 years since Joseph J. walked out of prison, he still recalls the “basically inedible food” and “the very, very poor mattress” that caused him to spend $5 over and over again to purchase wood from the woodshop that he used for slats under his bed. Those slats were illegal and often confiscated by guards.

Joseph J. worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the prison kitchen, preparing lunches and dinners. Other jobs
Freundel may be assigned to include office or machine shop work, he said.

While serving in a satellite camp is preferable, Joseph J. stressed that “it is not a country club.” He slept on a bunk bed in one of two large L-shaped rooms, each holding 200 prisoners. Of those 400 prisoners,
40 were Jewish.

Sleeping “can be tough if you are next to a snorer,” he said. The one pillow he was allocated was not a good one, he said. “People scrounge for pillows.”

Breakfast is the best meal, although Joseph J. said his favorite meal was the half chicken served for lunch one day a week. Meals included a cold bar, usually salad, and a hot bar, which usually consisted of vegetable soup, rice and beans. “Old army cheese” is frequently included in many meals.

“I lost 20, 22 pounds,” especially in the beginning. New inmates often were “in such a state at first, you can’t eat,” he said.

A normal day included being awakened at 6:10 a.m. for the first of several head counts. Then it was on to breakfast before heading to a job. At 11 a.m., inmates changed from their work clothes back to their prison khaki or green uniform for
another count and lunch.

Following the end of the workday, there was another count at 4 p.m. The rest of the day included free time until dinner and more free time until 10 p.m., when inmates had to return to their bunks for another count.

During free time, prisoners could watch television, exercise on the grounds, play softball, run on the track, work out in the gym or go to the library. Joseph J. spent much of his unsupervised time in the library, reading a total of 185 books during his stay.

In a minimum security facility, where Freundel also could be sent, there is freedom of movement “to an extent,” Joseph J. said. A prisoner can go somewhere “on the hour,” only after telling a prison official where he was headed, he said.

Prisoners do receive mail, but delivery is “sporadic at best.” Joseph J. subscribed to The Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh. “Sometimes I would go six weeks without and then there would be three” newspapers delivered in one day.

Joseph J. prayed with his fellow Jewish inmates. There was a Jewish chaplain attached to his camp.

Freundel will be able to remain observant. “We as an institution make sure,” said Rabbi Moishe Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute-N.E. Regional Headquarters, a not-for-profit Jewish organization aiding Jews in prison and their families.

Prisoners “are able to pray three times a day,” he said. They also can have tefillin and a prayer book, although those items first must first go through a security check, Vogel said.

The Aleph Institute strives to make sure every prison has a rabbi and that its volunteers visit prisoners. The organization also works with inmates once they are free and is available to assist family members of inmates, who Vogel called “the silent sufferers of all this, sitting at home.”

As long as Freundel registers for the certified food menu, he will be provided with kosher meals and kosher for Passover ones as well.

Vogel would not be surprised if Freundel is sent to a prison where there are other Orthodox Jews.

“Keeping the faith will help them when they get out,” Vogel said of Jewish inmates. His organization has between 8,000 and 9,000 Jewish prisoners in its national database, but “we know there are many more who don’t identify as Jewish.”

Once Freundel finishes his time in prison, he is likely to spend time in a halfway house, followed by months under supervision.

Said Vogel: “When he comes out, he will know who his friends were.”

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Riding High

‍‍2015-05-21 10:11:36 - כח כסלו תשעה mjankovitz

Seth Wong (left) and JJ Slatkin have high hopes for their new marijuana testing business.

Seth Wong (left) and JJ Slatkin have high hopes for their new marijuana testing business.

DENVER — Seth Wong’s place of work is heavily cluttered, with shelves loaded with moldy bagels, stale cake and fermenting carrots. There’s a not-so-faint smell of urine in the air.

But if all goes according to plan for Wong and his new business partner, JJ Slatkin, their new office soon will have something else in abundance: marijuana.

The two Jewish 30-somethings are launching a new company that will offer contaminant testing and potency analysis for cannabis, which Colorado legalized in 2014.

Wong’s current place of work is no frat house; he is president of a 70-year-old company called Industrial Laboratories, which does food and drug analysis. The aging cakes and other foods are being analyzed for shelf life and examined for pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli, the clutter includes $500,000 machines that deconstruct molecules to ensure the nutritional claims on food product labels are accurate, and the stench comes from racehorse urine being tested for banned substances. The lab also drug screens the urine of livestock, carrier pigeons, greyhounds and Iditarod racing dogs.

“Normally, our lab smells like a stockyard,” Wong said during a recent tour of the facility in Wheat Ridge, Colo., just west of Denver.

When it comes to their new company, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Wong and Slatkin are hoping two
elements will give them a leg up over the competition: Wong’s strong reputation for quality microbiological testing and their personal connections with many of the state’s leading marijuana producers — many of whom happen to be Jews.

“Many of the original real trailblazers and entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry are Jewish, and there are a handful of major operations within Colorado that have Jewish ownership,” said Slatkin, who has a background in finance. “Our Jewish community relationships have definitely been important.”

There’s Ean Seeb, chairman of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a Jewish federation leader who has his own Jewish events company. There’s Joseph Max Cohen, who started the Clinic Medical Marijuana Center in 2009 and now has multiple facilities in the Denver area. Many of the administrators at the Pink House Blooms chain of marijuana dispensaries are Jewish. So is Richard Greenberg, executive vice president of Global Cannabis Ventures and an investor in an Israeli company focused on improving marijuana breeding methods.

Slatkin and Wong are well connected in this world, largely through their Jewish associations. They count Seeb as a good friend. They often run into marijuana entrepreneurs at events sponsored by the local Jewish federation, where Wong and Slatkin are young leaders. (Wong met his fiancee on a Jewish federation retreat.) The business partners are also Wexner Heritage fellows, a program that supports young Jewish volunteer leaders.

Wong, 34, has an unusual Jewish background. His mother is from a Jewish family in Philadelphia and his father is from a Protestant Chinese family. Wong’s grandfather came over from China in the 1920s at the age of 9 as a “paper son” — with fake identity papers. Though his father and brothers already were in the United States, they were running bars and brothels during Prohibition and weren’t much help, and Wong’s father was adopted by a Jewish family.

He never became Jewish, but four decades later his son — Wong’s father — brought home a Jewish wife. Wong himself grew up in Boulder, going to Hebrew school and Jewish youth groups, yet relishing his family’s famed Chinese roast pork recipe. When he turned 13, Wong asked his father — who owns Industrial Laboratories, which Wong now runs — to convert to Judaism so he could stand alongside Wong on the bimah platform at his bar mitzvah. He obliged.

Slatkin, 32, comes from a long line of Denver Jews. Five generations ago, his ancestors fled pogroms in Russian to move to a Jewish agricultural settlement in Cotopaxi, Colo., that flourished briefly in the 1880s. After the settlement failed, they migrated to Denver and in 1887 founded an Orthodox synagogue on Denver’s west side, Congregation Zera Abraham, and had a hand in founding several others.

A Jewish day school graduate, Slatkin is a leader in his minyan at the Hebrew Educational Alliance, a Conservative synagogue in Denver, and he maintains a weekly Torah study date with an Orthodox rabbi in town. He and Wong met through Jewish channels.

“My personal life revolves almost entirely around Jewish life in Colorado,” Slatkin said. “The continuity of the Jewish people is probably the most important goal in my life. That and getting married at some point — to a Jewish girl, obviously.”

Professionally, Slatkin and Wong’s near-term goal is getting their new company up and running — and courting clients. They’ve obtained state licensing, are building their new lab at the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus in Aurora and have raised about half of the $1.5 million they need to get started. Once they are certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and other third-party certifiers, they’ll be ready to go — perhaps as soon as June.

Colorado already has nine labs certified to provide potency testing and four labs certified to provide residual solvent testing. But TEQ, Slatkin said, would be certified to meet all testing requirements mandated by the state.

There’s a bit of a Wild West element to Colorado’s marijuana industry. Fearful of federal retribution (marijuana is still illegal under federal law), banks are wary of dealing with marijuana companies, so almost everything is handled in cash. The state is wary of licensing any entrepreneurs with criminal histories dealing or growing pot. Potency labeling is confusing and inconsistent —
a problem Wong hopes the lab will help rectify.

The principal psychoactive element in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol — better known as THC. Currently, cannabis producers must disclose the amount of THC present in each serving of their product, but producers are still seeing great variability in potency. Slatkin and Wong say TEQ can help remove that variability so products have a consistent level of potency.

“We’ve been watching the cannabis industry for some time, and the industry could benefit from a lab of our expertise,” Wong said. “Now is our time.”

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